The Psychology of Fake News

Postmodernism has moved from culture to psychiatry to politics.

Posted Sep 04, 2018

Something has happened with the election of Donald Trump that has gone, despite all the punditry, mostly unremarked. The president of “Make America Great Again” (as in, circa 1955) is the president of fake news. It’s clear that the president tells untruths, and that the line between lie and truth is blurred, or even denied. Phrases are used like “truth isn’t truth,” and “alternative facts." It’s obviously Orwellian, but what isn’t appreciated is what Orwell, and others, meant in their warnings. 

For Orwell, it began with the Big Lie of totalitarianism. First fascists, then Soviet communists, used propaganda to lie repeatedly, which, in the context of total control of the media and the state, could be used to brainwash an entire population. This is no longer possible in the era of the internet, but the Big Lie of totalitarianism can be approximated by deliberate repeated falsehoods or half-truths on social media and cable television. As long as listeners agree with only obtaining their news from those sources, the Big Lie can survive.

But there was a deeper or more insidious evolution of Orwell’s concern. After totalitarianism was defeated west of the Iron Curtain, a successor emerged that shared some of its features: postmodernism. This way of thinking held that truth grows out of power, and thus is relative. There is no absolute truth outside of regimes of power.  This philosophy had roots in Germany, in Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, but it was most influential in post-war France, among philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and later Michel Foucault. These post-war thinkers influenced the next generation, the youth of the 1960s and 1970s, who initiated the countercultural change that swept across Europe and America, most explicitly in the revolts of 1968. Those students became middle-aged in the 1980s, and now are aging but still influential. They in turn educated another generation which has become used to the concept that the power structure of society is influential. Some observers, like Allan Bloom in the 1980s, noted this cultural change and warned about its effects. But it took the election of Trump for the impact to become obvious. Truth is beleaguered in politics today because it has been under constant attack in Western Culture for half a century. 

Fake news is the political child of the philosophy of postmodernism.  It has seeped deeply into the culture; one need not read Foucault to have his ideas swimming in the head. It is the spirit of the age. We now reap what postmodernist academics and writers have been sowing for decades.

Before becoming obvious, Western postmodernism made itself felt strongly in the sciences: The denial of climate change. The refusal to use vaccines. 

In psychiatry, postmodernist claims began in the 1950s with the founder of Scientology and it has spread through academia and the larger culture, as I've written, as far back as 10 years ago, in this blog: there is no such thing as mental illness; diagnoses are made up by the psychiatric profession for their own benefit; drugs are not effective, merely marketed for profit. These claims are partly right, but not fully, as their proponents claim. Some diagnoses are made up by DSM "pragmatic" leaders, who mislead the profession. But other diagnoses, like bipolar illness, are legitimate scientifically

We live in a world of cultural relativism, where any claim to truth, even in science and medicine, is distrusted first, and always on the defensive. The internet and social media is not a cause of this relativism; it is a powerful mechanism for its further spread. It was there long before the internet, in the 1960s and earlier.  We are reaping its fruits fully now. 

One consequence is that we’ve elected a president for whom truth has no meaning independent of power. The irony is that many of his critics on the Left share his method – they oppose psychiatry or reject vaccines on the same grounds that Trump opposes CNN – but oppose his specific political goals. And many of his supporters on the Right, like evangelical Christians, who claim to believe in morals and beliefs that are based on God’s word, support a relativist president because they share his political goals. 

Foucault would have been proud.